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Ryan Cafaro, 26, learned young, "don't ever let someone tell you that you can't do something. Because you can," he said.
Cafaro, of Groton, said he had friends in grade school and mean classmates. But he learned to stand up for himself.
Cafaro, along with Andrew Szczesny, 15, of Mystic, are among the 76 athletes and Unified Sports partners, 22 coaches and two delegates who will represent Connecticut at the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games June 14 to 21 in New Jersey.
Andrew will compete in cycling; Cafaro will compete in softball. Both athletes have an autism spectrum disorder.
"When I was younger, kids were pretty mean, bullies and stuff. But I told them (I'm) not going to let someone bring me down," Cafaro said. "I would like to inspire a lot of young kids and young adults to do what I did. In a way, they're just like me, and if I can do it so can they."
The games will draw nearly 3,500 athletes from across the country to participate in 16 Olympic-style team sports, including cycling, unified sprint triathlon, unified basketball, unified softball, tennis and aquatics. Special Olympics hosts the USA Games every four years, with 10,000 volunteers and 70,000 family members and spectators expected to attend this year.
Andrew learned to ride a bike on his own, at about age 5, said his mother, Susan Szczesny.
She said he had training wheels for awhile, then one day looked like he was ready.
"We just took them off and he could ride," she said. "It's like his favorite thing to do."
Andrew, the youngest of three and a freshman at Robert E. Fitch High School in Groton, bikes twice a week, for about an hour and a half to two hours. During last year's Connecticut Summer Olympic Games Andrew won a gold in 5K cycling and a silver in a 5k time trial, where cyclists are sent every 30 seconds so they're racing against the clock rather one another.
Even so, Andrew wanted to be first and finished 4 seconds behind the gold medal winner.
"He likes to be first. He doesn't like anybody to be ahead of him," his mother said.
He was selected as part of Team Connecticut, along with three other cyclers and a coach. She said he's excited about the games and is expected to race in a 2K, a 5K and a 10K.
Cafaro said he'll most likely play left field for the softball team, though he likes to play other positions also. He's 6 feet 1 inches tall, so he can grab a throw someone else might miss. He's also hit many home runs.
He's been playing softball since he was a kid, though he never played on a Little League team.
Last summer, Cafaro played soccer in the Connecticut Special Olympic Games for the seventh or eighth year, he said. Softball wasn't offered at the state level.
"In my opinion, I just found softball to have a little bit more action for me. I'm a big action guy," he said.
Cafaro, the youngest of five, graduated from Robert E. Fitch High School in 2006 and works at the Groton Wal-Mart, collecting carts and stocking shelves about 32 hours a week. He practices softball twice a week with the team and sometimes goes to batting cages on his own.
He had to try out to land a spot on the state team.
"So I'm pretty much a rookie," he said.
He said he's looking forward to playing, to giving it his all and to enjoying other activities like a boat trip to see the Statue of Liberty.
"To me Special Olympics is determination," Cafaro said. "Never, never give up. Keep on trying. Never, never give up on your dreams."